“Failing the common people”
India has an independent judiciary. Nonetheless, the gaps between
codified law and grassroots reality are wide. The Delhi-based
Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial Reforms wants
matters to change. Prashant Bhushan, one of its leaders, explained
what is wrong with the courts and what could make a difference in a
[ Interview with Prashant Bhushan ]
In any democracy, the judicial branch of government has to be
sufficiently independent to check and balance the
administrative authorities. On the other hand, every branch of
government must be held accountable. To whom is the judiciary
Practically speaking, the judiciary in India is not accountable to anyone.
The only method of holding a judge accountable under the Constitution
is to remove him by way of impeachment. The procedure for initiating
impeachment has been found to be totally impractical, so it really does
not ever happen. To start impeachments proceedings requires the
signatures of 100 members of Lok Sabha, the lower house of
parliemant, or 50 members of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. Such
numbers are virtually impossible.
Why is that so?
Politicians are unwilling to sign impeachment motions against judges of
the High Court or the Supreme Court, since all of them fear a judicial
backlash against their respective parties. The judiciary has been
resisting any attempt to set up an independent constitutional body
which can investigate complaints against judges. They have been
saying that at best, the judiciary can only be accountable to itself. But
we self-accountability really amounts to non-accountability, because
enforcing rules upon oneself is about enormous conflicts of interest.
In what respects are courts not living up to their official duties?
Those who are in authority are happy with a dysfunctional,
unaccountable and corrupt judiciary. Such a judiciary will not hold
abusing power to account, and it is easy for those in power to strike
deals with corrupt judges. It is the common people of India who need a
functional, accountable and honest judiciary. The courts in India are
inaccessible to the common people of India who cannot afford lawyers.
They have also become very elitist and anti poor. They function with
enormous lethargy and have become largely corrupt.
Indian government bodies have a reputation of corruption. Are
you saying that the courts are no different?
Transparency International found the judiciary in India to be the second
most corrupt institution after the police. A corrupt judiciary will naturally
not be successful in holding other institutions of the state to account.
There are however honourable exceptions and several judges in
various High Courts and some in the Supreme Court have done an
admirable job in holding those in executive authority to account.
What kind of reforms would make the courts perform better?
We need to set up many more courts at the village level. These courts
should allow common people access without the help of lawyers. In
other words, they must not be burdened with strict, but meaningless
procedures. Local courts would help to speed up the disposal of cases,
many of which drag on for years if not decades. We also need
independent, full-time statutory commissions for the appointment and
removal of judges in the Higher Judiciary. And we nee suitably trained
judges who understand the problems of common people.
Many laws are not strictly enforced in India – and many are
either out-dated or were probably not designed in an
implementable way in the first place. What does that mean for
Many laws are indeed outdated and impractical – and thus not
enforced. But many other laws are not implemented because the rich
and powerful are able to subvert the law enforcement machinery
including the judiciary. In India, judges can find anyone disobeying their
orders guilty of contempt of court, a criminal offence. In theory, that is a
powerful tool of enforcement. But very often judges don’t bother to
enforce their rulings – especially when they would have to be enforced
against the powerful.
Indian courts have a reputation of environmental activism,
thanks to a series of innovative rulings in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yes, but if one examines the recent record of the Supreme Court in its
environmental activism, two trends are immediately clear:
– When environmental protection comes into conflict with socioeconomic
rights of the poor and the marginalised, the poor usually get
short shrift and
– when environmental protection comes into conflict with powerful
vested commercial and corporate interests or what is perceived by the
Court to be “development”, environmental protection usually get short
India’s labour legislation is strongly in favour of formally
employed staff, but it applies only to a small fraction of the
workforce. Conditions for contract workers in industries or
agriculture are much harsher. What are the implications in
Even the legislation and judgments which support labour in the
organised economy is not being enforced. This has been particularly
so since India embarked upon neoliberal economic policies. There are,
laws to protect contract labour in industries too, but there is no legal
protection for agricultural or domestic labour. This needs to be rectified
by legislation and proper enforcement.
Are the courts class-biased?
There can be little doubt that the Indian courts, generally speaking, are
failing to protect the socio-economic rights of the common people who
constitute the vast majority of the Indian population. Part of the reason
lies in the class structure of the Indian judiciary. The higher judiciary in
India almost invariably comes from the elite section of the society – and
that is hardly different in the USA and other powerful, western nations,
where courts tend to rule in favour of the establishment. The Indian
judiciary, however, has become a self-appointing and self-perpetuating
oligarchy. The Indian judges appoint themselves ever since the
Supreme Court passed a remarkably self-serving judgment by which
the judiciary appropriated the power of appointment from the
There is an inherent tension in the Indian constitution. The
fundamental rights are conservative in the sense of protecting
property and other personal rights of the well-to-do. The
directive principles, on the other hand, outline an agenda of
redistribution and wide-reaching empowerment. To what extent
does that trouble the legal professions?
The Supreme Court’s interpretation of fundamental rights has been
quite progressive in theory, and it has declared that the right to life
includes the right to live with dignity. However, that is not being
enforced. And governments are flouting the directive principles of
equality with impunity in the era of neoliberalism. None of this troubles
the influential sections of the legal profession, which makes enormous
money from the well heeled.
Questions by Hans Dembowski
Prashant Bhushan is a Supreme-Court lawyer in Delhi and a member of the Working
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Committee of the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial
“Failing the common people”